Local authorities engage in a wide range of activities, including licensing, planning, social services, making byelaws, highway maintenance, housing, waste disposal and the administration of pension funds. The list is long and disparate. Local government lawyers advise local authorities on the lawfulness of their decisions in these areas and represent them in court. All of this activity has a statutory foundation; therefore a good deal of the work involves statutory construction (working out what a statute means) and it all involves the practical application of public law principles.
A local government law barrister's work
Local authority cases can occur in a wide range of different tribunals. An example is an application for judicial review of a local authority’s decision in the Administrative Court. Such a case starts with an exchange of documents by claimant and defendant. The court then decides whether to grant permission to apply for a review. If permission is granted, there is a hearing. There are usually no live witnesses: the issues are decided on the basis of legal arguments and written evidence.
Clients are generally local authority full-time employees, called officers. They tend to be hard working and well informed about their own specialist areas.
A barrister working in this area may have several cases on the go at any one time but will be unlucky if they all simultaneously need urgent work. However, this can happen. Clerks will ensure that cases are not listed to be heard at the same time. The amount of time that barristers spend in court will depend on what areas they practise in. A barrister who does planning law may spend weeks in planning inquiries, and one doing housing law may frequently do appeals in the county court. On the other hand, a barrister specialising in issues regarding ‘vires’ (‘powers’: what local authorities may and may not do) may rarely go to court because much of that work is advisory.
This is an area in which it is possible to have a sensible work-life balance, particularly if most of one’s court work is in the Administrative Court. However, life as a planning barrister can be much more hectic, with frequent travelling and long inquiries. Generally, socialising with clients is not necessary. The best aspect of this area of work is its sheer variety. The worst can be the insights it provides into the harrowing circumstances of some people’s lives.
This area of work is buoyant: the scale of local authority activity and the complexity of the relevant legislation mean that there will always be questions about what local authorities may lawfully do.
What skills do local government law barristers need?
- Good analytical skills.
- A down-to-earth approach.
- The ability to communicate well with non-professional clients.
- Being a good listener.
- Teamwork skills.
- An interest in other human beings.
Local government law pupillages
Work as a pupil will depend on the practice of the pupil supervisor. It might involve drafting an acknowledgement of service in a judicial review application (a written reply by a defendant to an application for judicial review), a skeleton argument for a hearing, writing an advice on vires, or doing legal research. In a reasonably civilised set of chambers it should only exceptionally involve an all-nighter.
Types of law practised
- Housing law.
- Licensing law.
- Pensions law.
- Planning law.
ELISABETH LAING is a barrister at 11KBW. She read classics and law at Cambridge and was called to the Bar in 1980. She returned to practice in 1995 after a maternity break of nearly eight years. She is a recorder and a member of the attorney general’s A Panel of Counsel.